Interview: Dr. Judit Puskas03/27/2012
Dr. Judit Puskas, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, talks about her motiviation to help women with breast cancer, her career path and the project that received support from GE through its "Healthymagination Cancer Challenge."
Q: Has any member of the winning team been personally affected by breast cancer? If so, how?
Puskas: My own mother-in-law was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. She received aggressive treatment and was cured. She died of other causes.
My mentor’s wife, Ingrid Kennedy, who has advocated for us in pursuit of funding support, is a 30+ year breast cancer survivor, following aggressive treatment in Akron.
Additionally, Stephanie Lopina, Ph.D., a colleague of ours on this project and a member of the University of Akron Biomedical Engineering Department, battled breast cancer and eventually succumbed to the disease at a very young age, leaving a profound impression on all of us.
Knowing and working with these women—survivors and those who lost their lives—made me understand how a mastectomy could be so traumatic to some women that they see no choice but to have a reconstruction – having breasts is part of the female psyche.
As a material scientist, I felt compelled to develop an alternative to the currently available silicone rubber – the only “choice” to women. Realizing that we can combine reconstruction with cancer treatment made me absolutely dedicated to this cause.
Q: Who or what inspired you to be in the career that you’re currently in?
Puskas: Since childhood, I always wanted to be a doctor. I had a chemistry teacher in elementary school who was originally a university professor (Dr. Dobos Karolyne). She was demoted because of her role in the 1956 Hungarian revolution. She recognized my aptitude in science. I was also very good in the arts and when I had to decide which way to go she said, “You must study chemistry – arts are nice but very hard to make a living. You have a talent for science.”
So I studied science in high school. However, I realized that I had no chance to get into medical school in Hungary at the time, so I went into chemical engineering. I feel now that the circle is complete – I work with medical doctors to eradicate breast cancer.
I am committed to influence young people, especially women, to study science – just as I was influenced by my teacher.
I also would like to acknowledge the mentorship of Professor Joseph P. Kennedy, University of Akron Distinguished Professor of Polymer Science, now retired, who inspired me to pursue an academic career.
Q: How long have you known you wanted to work on a cure for cancer?
Puskas: Back in 2000, I was listening to a radio program on public radio and was inspired by a story about the thousands of women who wanted and needed breast implants and were frustrated because there was a government ban on silicone implants. This inspired me to use my knowledge of material science to develop a safer form of breast reconstruction. After realizing we could combine reconstruction with the delivery of drugs to actually cure cancer, I committed myself to using my background as a material scientist to do both.
Q: Does cancer prevention cross over into your own life? Meaning, is there anything you do or don’t do to live a healthy, preventative life?
Puskas: I try to live a healthy, preventative life – exercise, healthy nutrition, mind-body balance, spiritual life. However, the fact that I have seen women with extremely healthy life styles suffer from breast cancer makes me cautious to make any judgments – there are things beyond our control.
Q: Can you describe your specific role on the project?
Puskas: I hope I do not sound too presumptuous, but I think I have been the leader of this team. However, I must emphasize that without the support of the team members (especially Steve Schmidt, Ph.D., Chief Operating Officer of the Summa Foundation and Vice President, Clinical Research & Innovation, Summa Health System; and Michelle Chapman, Manager, Summa Center for Preclinical Research), I would be nothing. It is very satisfying to have a goal in life that is supported by an excellent team. We have a real chance to make this happen, provided we have both financial and spiritual support.
I also need to recognize the support of Jim Baker and MNIMBS (Michigan Nanotechnology Institute for Medicine and Biological Sciences), NSF, NIH, ABIA (Austen BioInnovation Institute of Akron), the University of Akron College of Engineering (Dean George Haritos and the Associate Deans), University President Luis Proenza, Provost Mike Sherman and Associate Provost Rex Ramsier, John C. Pedersen, M.D., Plastic Surgeon, the Illinois-based Austin Chemical Company, Professor Volker Altstadt (Germany) and Professor Miroslawa El Fray (Poland).